Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Stone That Sings Part III: Annah 2368

In summer, Annah had walked the rows of Jestral with Minerva ever since she could walk.  In the lower, hotter valleys, the leaves could be harvested year round, but here, high in the mountains, the Jestral shrubs grew much slower.  Havest was always in late summer, and had to be carefully timed with the dense fog that rolled in with the ocean.  After the third fog, but never more than a month later, Annah would walk the rows of lush shrubs, the edges of the normally green leaves taking a purplish tint. This year, Minerva dutifully followed, her toes grey from the dry, sandy ground, her young feet toughed by a summer of bare feet.

Annah showed Minerva how to delicately shear off the leaf from the step, place it in the flat of one hand while roundly slapping it with the other, opening her tightly closed hands over her nose to inhale the warm, heady scent of the leaf.  The warm scent was the perfume of summer, as if the leaves had drunk in the feel of the warm ground against her bare feet, the sun on her shoulders, the thick, lazy smell of the blossoms that hung within the late summer mists.  She waited for Minerva to experience the smell herself before she’d envelop her small hands within her own, establishing the connection to let her contentment with the familiar mingle with her surprise at the new.

To many of the other Jestral farmers, this was the test of the leaves being ready. Annah had a reputation for the very finest Jestral tea, to which many attributed Annah being able to telepathically sense when the plants were ready.  It was a rumor she only occasionally denied; instead, it was the mountain yarbees –who craved the young Jestral leaves most of the year, but found them bitter when the mountain mists started – that gave her an edge.  She could lie in bed half asleep, and delicately send her awareness outward to those yarbees clever enough slip by the modulation gaps in the sonic fencing to nibble at the Jestral shrubs. If they left hungry, she knew the leaves were ready.  If not, well, they had earned their meal.  Sometimes she’d ease her awareness further outward, trying to feel as much of the mountainside as she could, As she eased away from them, she’d check on Minerva, and Jol, even though he slept next to her.  Her Matron, Silva Seldt had grudgingly approved her choice of Jol when so many far more lucrative suitors had been available.  Jol had felt the most comfortable, so she’d kept him despite the neverending politics of the Decadet.

As if thinking about him caught his attention she felt his presence.

Tok seems to have taken a break from swinging from the Grand Nagus’ staff to grace us with his presence.  I may not feel his mood, but I know anxious when I see it.

She let him sense her amusement. Let him wait. Perhaps give him another cup of tea.

From this years batch?

No, replicate last year’s batch, but use the second cutting that we didn’t let them replicate. I want to see his face when he tries this year’s batch.

Looking back at the Manor House, Annah felt a swell of pride. Between the flying buttresses that pressed the sloping, grey structure against and impossible angle of the mountainside, a crowd waited attentively. There were over two hundred who would participate in this year’s harvest. Chosen from the lower houses, their presence surged at her attention. Their excitement and eagerness was a solid wall of being that rang out between the mountaintops.  They were led by those of her own strata -- the Decadet comprised of the top ten Houses. They were the chief cutters and sorters, many who ran their own tea houses across Betazed.  Among themselves, they selected volunteers from the top one hundred houses – the Hectat. That generous Hectat, with permission of the Eight House, picked a select few from the Pentahectat whose excitement shone high and bright above the others.  She gently touched Minerva’s shoulder and let her feel the adoration from all those who provided service to the upper houses without being overwhelmed – a sensation glorious and humbling at the same time.  Connected to her daughter, she sought out Jol’s presence again, and didn’t have to look far completing a connection she had grown so much to enjoy.

Together, we share these wonders. Not just you and I, daughter, but all of Betazed. We rise on each other’s joy, and support those in need. There is nothing more beautiful in the entire universe. Simply being together.

In that moment, she could embrace them all; they were hers and she would throw them a party they would talk about until next year.  She released them, and without a word, they silently went to work harvesting Jestral.

 Annah carefully extracted herself and Minerva from the presence of those working. Minerva’s presence was just starting to form – early for her age, a sign of strength, she thought with a small sense of pride.  She watched for a moment as Minerva went with some of her staff to help with lay out  Jestral cuttings to dry.  Content, she called two of her best with her and proceeded to the guest house.

Annah was not disappointed. Nagus Tok’s delegation was not as skilled as their boss at hiding their reactions, and even Tok himself was speechless before this years first cutting of Jestral.  Tok had long since confided the Grand Nagus usually padded Toks entourage with his own spies, but Annah suspect it was more to irritate Tok.  He made a show of his second taste, sniffing grandly at the cup before slurping at the cup and swishing it around his mouth noisily.  Tok over the years had become an expert taster, which gave his actions a modicum of decorum. His selected entourage had no such practice. One of them even gargled.

Shall I bring out the gong? Jol thought to her hopefully.

Annah prodded Jol playfully, as she concealed her amusement behind a sip of her own tea, a replicate from a third cutting seven years ago. It was the year Minerva was born, giving it a sentimental sweetness.

One of Tok’s associates dabbed at his lip with a napkin, the deep furrows on his forehead returning. “It is an acceptable brew of tea.”

Annah delicately cleared her throat, almost forgetting to speak. “If you say so.” She said mildly. 

Tok coughed loudly, before his associate could respond with an even more insipid statement.  “This cutting reminds me of the second cutting from four years ago.  The year that sudden cold front hand come up from the southern pole, and the mists had been icy. “

Annah looked to Jol, who had a cup of the current crop. He sipped, thinking for a moment and nodded.  “I can taste a certain resemblance.  Your skills in tea tasting have grown considerably. Nagus.”

Tok nodded.  “When I arrived, there must have been fifty people running up and down the rows putting tarps over the tea, their lights bobbing like swamp lights.  I can’t believe that I thought about turning around and heading right back to Ferengar.”

“Instead I seem to remember you helping carry some tarps.”  Annah noted with a smile as Tok’s entourage looked at the portly Ferengi with amazement.

“Hrm! Just protecting my investment, and my uncle reminding me the snails were sweeter where the water was the most brackish. A little adversity seems to bring out the best in snails and tea.”

“And people.”

 “That cutting was your second most popular. A second cutting that out did most others’ first cutting! Had I negotiated exclusive rights, I could have been Grand Nagus.”

“You did get exclusive rights after your assocate Golthop was caught trying to copy the replicator patterns from the tea patterns we give to Starfleet.”  Every year, House Seldt sent replication patterns of at least a hundred samples, to allow those Betazoids that served to enjoy a tea from home with a measure of variety. Golthop had a far-off relative who had stolen the patterns from the USS Tarmore while she was going through retrofit. Starfleet hadn’t suspected anything amiss, but the patterns were keyed to Starfleet replicators, so when they were sold – as rumor had it – to a Syndicate Prince and provided nothing more than acrid glop.  Tok mysteriously became sole proprietor, and Golthop scaresely a footnote in Ferengi employment records.

Tok made a face. “Golthop was a fool.”  He glared at the funny looks from his advisors. Swindling replicator patterns was a time-honored practice, though even they would concede that getting caught was foolish.

“I would be willing to continue our agreement with twelve percent share.”

A hoary Ferengi with deeply wrinkled lobes scowled and set his teacup down with a loud clack. Annah didn’t remember him from last years’ delegation. “That’s fifty percent more than the standard contract! If we were Betazoid, you wouldn’t charge us a flake of latinum for your tea!”  The Ferengi’s voice had that insufferable sneer that so many of them couldn’t suppress when dealing with women.

“Because like so many others in the galaxy, if you don’t pay for something, you don’t value it.” Annah answered dryly.

Tok jumped in with a glare to the older Ferengi, who shied away. “We could see twelve percent…if you considered shipping some of your tea offworld to be sold exclusively through Tok distribution.”

Jol added more tea to Annah and Tok’s cup. The staff found the static from Ferengi minds disconcerting, so he attended them himself.  He went to the cup of Tok’s first assistant and paused before pouring.  “We barely grow enough to provide for Betazed, let alone to let some lout boil the leaves to soup, add half again as much sugar and use it to drown biscuits.” He sniffed. “That’s what Earl Grey is for.”

The assistant Tok froze in mid-reach toward the sugar bowl and elaborately brought his hand back to his chin. “Our shuttle flew over a whole mountainside left fallow.”

“We let the land rest between seasons and alternate mountainsides. The remainder we leave alone.”  Annah said, with all the patience of reminding a child.

“With fertilizers you could easily triple your yield.”

“I have no interest in replicating fertilizers to replicate tea.” Annah said with a shrug. “Given time, everything will simply be a replication of something else. Tea is about variety. Two cuttings from the same plant in the same year taste different. One can be fresh and bright, the next earthy and thoughtful. Betazed expects those subtle changes to be part of drinking tea grown by House Sheldt.  It is…a luxury lost on the rest of the galaxy.

Tok’s advisor – most likely his accountant shook his finger at the Matron of House Sheldt and her consort. “You could easily triple your profits.”

“I don’t know what latinum I have. I’ve been told it is a considerable sum.”

“Then why charge us more?” He asked with the sneer of closing a trap.

Nagus Tok rubbed his temples. “Because shut up, Parth. Would the matron of House Seldt consider ten percent?”

“Ten, and I maintain rights to distribute to Starfleet.”

Tok shrugged. “You rob me blind. But I accept.” He scowled at his advisors. “Now let me get rid of this useless lot and let us celebrate with snail juice. I have been experimenting feeding them replicated Jestral leaves. The flavor takes your breath away.”

Snail juice takes my appetite away. Jol thought to her with some amusement.

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